Nicole Avetrani: France as Text 2019

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Photo by Gianmarco Agostinone (CC by 4.0)

Nicole Avetrani is currently a student of the Honors College at Florida International University. She is an International Relations major, minoring in Communications. She will be a senior as of Fall 2019, and was fortunate enough to join the Honors France study abroad program as taught by John W. Bailly as the next step in her Honors FIU journey. These are her As Texts.

 

PARIS AS TEXT

A Letter to Paris by Nicole Avetrani of FIU in Paris, France on 7 July 2019.

Dear Paris,

I met you 7 days ago. These days have been spent in Metro cars, cafés, museums, and castles. These days have been measured in miles walked, café crémes drinken, and 10 PM sunsets. All in daily attempts to explore and understand you. And yet, as of now, I can’t say that I do.

Prior to this trip, you have only ever been defined in stereotypes – wine and cheese, the Eiffel Tower in lights, people in love. It took very little time to come to the realization that you – a city previously unknown to me – are far too complex to be condensed into such simplified and superficial categories.

A semester’s worth of weekly classes could only scratch the surface of your complex and colorful past. Religion, revolution, and expression seem to be the catalysts of your evolution. You have been celebrated and manipulated by kings who share a singular namesake. You have been the battleground for wars fought by men with weapons and wars fought by people with ideas. Moreover, you are a place where men with weapons and men with ideas are equally catastrophic.

In light of these wars, religions, and ideas, your identity is in a constant state of evolution, and your streets are the evidence. The people, the store fronts, the brick-patterned buildings and the stands in the market places.

I find comfort in your complexity, because as I struggle to define my own identity I am beginning to learn that, like you, my identity can be multi-faceted; it is not exclusively what others are able to perceive on the surface, but the inward colors of the past that comprise the fabric of my identity.

I met you 7 days ago. And in my attempt to define the composition of your identity, I’ve been projecting my personal internal struggle to define the elements of my own. It’s only been a week, and I can say that I’ve been given the incredible opportunity to be able to learn these lessons about myself here in Paris. It’s been a week, and I can say with confidence that, while I still fail to define you, I am thoroughly enjoying getting to know you.

 

VERSAILLES AS TEXT

I Almost Had to Wait Once by Nicole Avetrani of FIU at Chateau Versailles on 7 July 2019.

A man with an idea. A simple sentence, but one with profound implications. Louis XIV was a man who made a decision to turn a hunting lodge into the heart of the French government, and justified using approximately 20% of the government’s budget in its maintenance, all the while in the firm belief that the legacy of Versailles outweighed his obligation to the people. In doing so, he set forth a chain of events that forever altered the landscape of not only French history, but the history of the world.

Visually, Versailles is inarguably stunning. The embodiment of Rococo extravagance and utter indulgence, the rooms seem to compete for your attention, and the gardens seem to never end. Impeccably detailed and meticulously designed, it becomes almost difficult to imagine such a place being the extension of a single man’s vision.
Although deserving of the awe it receives from the twisting, infinite lines of tourists lined at its gates in the morning, one would be mistaken to leave their assessment of Versailles at its physical facade. Versailles was not built to be beautiful for the sake of beauty. Versailles is so incredibly impressive because it uses art and faith as mere tools — and Louis XIV was keenly aware of how effective of a tool Versailles could be. The Sun King’s face is mirrored in every piece of artwork — reimagined as Apollo or Mars, carved into marble busts, engraved in gold adornments along the walls and ceilings. Even in the Hall of Mirrors, where you expect to catch your own reflection in the specially crafted French glass, you find Louis XIV, in the smallest of details. Consequently, he is inextricably connected to the palace for as long as history will allow it to stand. In doing so, he has cemented his place among the most successful kings to have ever ruled. He has negated every argument challenging the morality of the construction of Versailles by succeeding in doing exactly what he intended — using wealth and power to manipulate beauty, religion, and art, all to serve as a permanent monument to his legitimacy as a king and the position of France at the peak of European culture and power.

 

IZIEU AS TEXT

La Prière de Liliane Adressée à Dieu by Nicole Avetrani of FIU at Izieu on 12 July 2019.

The last week has brought many things into question. At the forefront of these is religion.

It is easy to understand those who question the existence of a God in a world where something like the Holocaust can happen. It is especially easy when you walk through the empty rooms of a building that was once a home to 44 children. 44 innocent, unassuming lives, first separated from their parents and families and then separated from the last place that stood a chance at being somewhere they could call their home. 44 flames, all between the ages of 5 and 17 on April 6th of 1943, when the Gestapo decided, against all reason, to extinguish their light from the world.

But then there is Liliane. Her letter, both a plea and a reaffirmation of her faith in God’s will. How could you deny the existence of a God she so assuredly placed her faith in? A child who, left with nothing at just 9 years old, still had faith. A child who, after April 6th 1943, ceased to exist except in photographs, drawings, and a prayer addressed to God.

These children were flames, lit by hardship, perseverance, and hope. At the end of their rope, feeling defeat in its rapid approach, the Gestapo made a desperate attempt to further plunge the world into their darkness by targeting places like Izieu, that stood as a shining beacon of hope and refuge to so many. The tragic irony is that, in spite of their senseless and unwarranted murder, the Gestapo ultimately failed.

April 6th: the date in which the Izieu children left and the day that the Gestapo thought their humanity had been erased from the face of the world, because they were sure to leave no trace of them behind. July 12th: the date in which 20 students (from another continent, another state, another school, another culture, another era) participated in the remembrance of the Izieu children by immortalizing them in their memories and in their words.

 

LYON AS TEXT

Passant Ua Dire Au Monde Qu’ils Sont Morts Pour La Liberte by Nicole Avetrani of FIU in Lyon, France on 10 July 2019.

The Resistance was far larger than the people who partook in it. This much is evident from a walk in the streets of Lyon.

Prior to 1942, Lyon was the heart of the Resistance. With the invasion of Germany in 1940, there was little time wasted in developing a network dedicated to the liberation of France from Nazi control and the Vichy government enabling their oppressive regime. Lyon became a bustling center of clandestine newspapers and winding traboules, unique passageways that are hidden within the city’s buildings, courtyards, and alleys.

With November of 1942 came the takeover of Lyon by the Gestapo. Klaus Barbie sought to not only invade the city, but transform it into their headquarters. In this city, Barbie personally enacted the intimate tortures and interrogations of thousands of individuals earning the moniker, “Butcher of Lyon.”

Evidence of these conflicting roles – both as the heart of the French Resistance and the headquarters of the Gestapo – can be found throughout the city. There are the traboules, each unique in their composition of color and combination of passageways and staircases, reflective of their individual histories and uses in regards to the Resistance. There is the monument located in the center of the town, a grim man crafted in stone and bearing a shield with the symbol of the Resistance, in a constant mission to serve as a reminder of the Resistance fighters who were executed in that very street. There is the Hotel des Celestines, owned by a man whose mother – a woman who served as a liason in the Resistance  – is survived by her poems and her son’s intimate words. There is the Montluc prison, a somber and uninviting collection of buildings that was home to the suppression of the Resistance and the persecution of the Jewish in Lyon.

Lyon is teeming with history and life, and at the center of it all are the people who, everyday, maintain the legacy of those who sacrificed in the name of a liberated France.

NORMANDY AS TEXT

Normalcy by Nicole Avetrani of FIU at Normandy American Cemetery on 23 July 2019

For the Hoback brothers, “normal” was life in Bedford, Virginia. It was the life that was built for them growing up in a small American town, with a population of about 3,200.

For the Hoback brothers, “normal” perfectly described their family of nine: their parents, them, and their siblings – Lucille, Mabel, Cecil, Elsie, and Rachel.

For Bedford Hoback, the oldest,  it was “normal” to be described as foul-mouthed and stubborn, but intensely determined. He loved his fiancée. He believed in the integrity of service, and it was that which drew him to the U.S. National Guard.

For Raymond, “normal” was often his default. Four years younger, he was reserved, practical, and committed. Drawn to service by, as their sister Lucille put it, “a kid brother’s admiration of his older brother.”

It was “normal” for the Bedford Company to depart for a week or two to train at army camps scattered around the region. The look of pure joy and relief on each of the Bedford boys’ faces as they got off of the bus and returned home after each of these training sessions was “normal,” too.

In February of 1941, it was “normal” for Bedford’s young men to begin minimizing their belongings and saying their goodbyes. As the Bedford Company mobilized, “normal” was put on pause by the first instance of the effects of war in Bedford, Virginia.

“Normal,” in the summer of 1941, is the 7-hour drive home from Fort Meade where they’ve been stationed. On the weekends they’ve managed to get passes home, it’s normal for Bedford to charge his buddies $2 a piece for a ride in his station wagon back to Virginia.

On June 6th, 1944, “normal” is the overwhelming fear that paralyzes the teenagers of Omaha beach. Is it normal to want to hide? Is it normal to want to call out for your mother? Is it normal to wish you could be anything other than the American hero they told you you would be? Because you don’t want to be an American hero, you just want to live? How much dye does it take to stain an entire ocean red? Is that “normal”? And after you’ve been hit, is it normal for the world to fade away this quickly? Is this how life goes? This is normal?

An ocean away in Virginia, it was “normal” for Lucille to celebrate her 15th birthday… on June 8th. Unaware that anything outside of “normal” had happened to her brothers just two days before.

In Mid-July of 1944, it was “normal” in the town of Bedford, Virginia, to receive a telegram from the U.S. government, to formally (and regretfully) inform you that your son would not be returning home, and that life, from now on, would never resemble normal again. 

The sisters of the Hoback brothers make a bittersweet, last-ditch effort at “normal” when they attempt to make homemade ice cream for their family in the days following the news of Bedford’s death. Then they receive a second knock, a second telegram. Raymond is Missing in Action. In the weeks that follow, they find his bible, left deserted on the beach, but they never find Raymond. This is their new “normal.”

“Normal,” now, is the dazed walk of a heartbroken father to the family barn in the back of the house, where he could grieve the loss of his sons freely, absent of the pressure to keep his devastated family together. 

Normal, decades later in the ‘70s, is a mother who has outlived two of her children, nearing the end of her own life. She screams from the depths of the nightmares in her sleep, “Where are my sons? Where are my sons?” Because as she dies of old age and a broken heart, the fragile “normal” that had been built for her over the years is coming apart again. 

Years later, well into her old age, Lucille shares the stories of her brothers. She cherishes Raymond’s bible like the treasure it is. She has married, had children, a career… All the while cherishing the memory of her brothers, both buried in Normandy so that (with no clue as to where Raymond’s body could be, other than the knowledge it was once on Omaha beach) the brothers could be buried together. She knows that, because of their service, her brothers have given her the greatest gift. Because of them, she has lived a normal life. 

 

Reflection

“Normalcy” is a play on Normandy. It’s a theme that I find relevant to not only the Bedford boys and the Hoback brothers, but to every man and woman present in the American Cemetery at Normandy. In our most intense moments, I think, we crave normalcy. When we are an ocean away from home, and studying in a foreign country with people we are still getting to know, we silently crave a night of sleep in the comfort of our own beds and the air conditioning. An ocean away from home, fighting for life in a foreign country for people they’ve never even met, I’m sure the young men deployed to Omaha Beach craved their own beds and their mothers and their normal American lives instead of the German machine guns they came face to face with instead.

Normal is important. The way we speak, the way we dress, our drive to school. The coffees you drink to get through the day, and getting to see your family when you get home at the end of it all. We only have our “normals” at the expense of each and every one of the thousands of graves that stand in the American Cemetery at Normandy.  That is the cost of normal.

Sources:

Baumgarten, Harold. D-Day Survivor, published 31 Oct 2006 via Pelican Publishing.

Bodnar, John. The “Good War” in American Memory, published 1 Oct 2010 via JHU Press.

Kershaw, Alex. The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, published 18 March 2008.

https://www.dday.org/2013/09/24/our-d-day-fallen-pvt-bedford-and-sgt-raymond-hoback/.

http://www.database-memoire.eu/prive/en-us/normandy-all-soldiers/43-colleville-h-us/2652-hoback-bedford-t-116-ir-29-id

PERE LACHAISE AS TEXT

Nostalgia is Not What it Was by Nicole Avetrani of FIU at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France on 26 July 2019.

Simone Signoret and Yves Montand

Yves

There is a boy, born in Tuscany as Ivo Livi. He has an older brother, and an older sister. His mother is beautiful and his father strong, but a passionate member of the Communist party in a country quickly being consumed by fascism. 

His father flees to France. A couple years later, his mother takes him and his siblings join him. In 1929, the effects of the economic depression can be felt in France, and the Livi family sinks further into poverty. 

At 11 years old, Ivo is taken out of school and put to work – which is fine by him, as he didn’t particularly like school anyway. When he’s not at the factory, he finds himself immersed in cinema – infatuated with Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper and the charm of a world so different from his own. 

As a teenager he begins to perform, and people begin to take notice. His career, interrupted only by WWII and a pause to work as a metalworker, begins to take off. As it does, his mother shouts “Ivo Monta!” from the crowd and he adapts this to become his new pseudonym – Ives Montand.

Simone

There is a girl, born in Germany as Simone Kaminker. In spite of her German origin, she would grow into a woman that was the embodiment of Parisian. The oldest of 3 children, she was born to a Jewish-Polish father employed in the League of Nations and a French-Catholic mother who inspired her well into stardom.

Her childhood is normal by most standards, and at 27 she marries a film director named Yves Allégret. Though ultimately a failed marriage, it paves the way for two of the most important aspects of Simone’s life: a daughter, Catherine, and an opportunity to pursue acting in her first major film roles. 

Three years later, they meet. Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. In 1951, they fall in love, and soon after are married. As their love grows, so does their fame, and they very quickly become the most iconic couple of French cinema. 

In 1960, Simone wins an Academy Award, being only the second French actress to have ever done so. It catapults her into the international spotlight, and soon after, Yves’ chance at success in American cinema comes when he is asked by Arthur Miller to star in a new film alongside Marilyn Monroe – entitled, “Let’s Make Love.” 

Let’s Make Love

Although Monroe and Signoret quickly develop a genuine friendship, often bonding off-camera, the 1960 film becomes a topic of controversy for everyone involved – Miller, Monroe, Signoret, and Montand. 

For Montand, the opportunity to make his impression on American cinema is countered by the pressure of a complete lack of English-speaking ability. Montand would be told how to pronounce the lines in English, given a rough French translation, and was then filmed performing it. 

Occurring  approximately two years before her death in 1962, Monroe was herself in a downward spiral – a culmination of harsh American media, an unfulfilling marriage, and deteriorating self-esteem. The pressures faced by the co-stars at the time are credited as being the catalysts for the alleged affair that subsequently takes place between the two.

Simone is credited as having handled the rumors of the affair bravely in front of the media. When later asked about Monroe after her death, Signoret is quoted as having said, “She’ll never know how much I didn’t hate her.”

 

A Note to Ivo

Yves –

I know your fear.

You are in a country you hardly know,

Fed lines in a language you don’t understand,

Under the constant pressure of proving your worth.

I know that fear.

 

Your struggle with identity,

Definitions and belonging,

Expectations and critics (the worst of them being yourself). 

I know that fear.

 

But I also know her pain.

The trap of intellectualism and the pressure of public image,

The sting of love’s betrayal, the embarrassment, the bitterness.

I know that pain.

 

What I do not know is your love.

I don’t pretend to understand your nonchalance with lovers and affairs,

Although the longer I am in Paris, the clearer that becomes.

 

I don’t pretend to understand the kind of love 

That overcomes fear and insecurity when they arrive in full force.

 

I don’t pretend to know the kind of love

That binds two people together not in chains, but in thousands of delicate threads.

 

I do know

That whatever it was you were both afraid of

Was surpassed by this love.

The evidence is here at my feet. 

And the kind of love that overcomes fear, I think, 

Is something this world could use a lot more of.

Reflection

In a 1987 interview with David Letterman, Yves delicately spoke about the alleged affair with Marlyn Monroe. What struck me the most was his vulnerability in admitting his fear; the pressure of a large American role coupled with a complete lack of English-speaking ability was incredibly anxiety-inducing for him. He was afraid of failing, afraid of being insufficient. This fear connected him to Monroe (whose crumbling marriage and deteriorating self-esteem was beginning to spiral further out of her control). Marilyn was unable to express her own fear, allowed only to assuage her fears and insecurities in the only way the media had ever granted her value or validation – her sexuality. While the affair is unconfirmed, and fear is an insufficient justification regardless, watching the interview and hearing his words added an element of humanity to his story. 

Another compelling aspect of this story is the relationship between Simone and Marilyn. Although fast friends, the dynamic of their relationship encapsulates the critical differences of French and American society, and their respective limitations and perceptions of women and sexuality. Marilyn and Simone were both intellectual, intelligent women; Simone’s upbringing in Paris as the daughter of a translator for the League of Nations lent itself to providing Simone with a background founded upon being well-educated, well-informed, and politically active. Marilyn, contrary to the image perpetuated by the media at the time, was enamored with literature, often writing poetry and sharing introspective thoughts on the Renaissance in her personal diaries. While Simone was able to express both facets of her personality freely in French cinema, Marilyn could not. Hollywood was quick to praise her beauty and sex appeal in one breath, then condemn her for it in the next. She sought validation in the only way society had given her value – through sex. Marilyn had an intense appreciation of life and romance, left unfulfilled by her marriage to Arthur Miller (whose notion of a romantic gesture was writing her a role in a play as a depressed divorcee). In comparison to the fairytale romance of France’s “It” couple, the constraints of her marriage begin to mount with those of her constructed Hollywood image, and one can easily see how American society was able to overwhelm a woman the way it did Marilyn Monroe. It prompts the question as to whether Marilyn Monroe would have accessed the entirety of her potential the way Simone Signoret was able to and been able to live a more fulfilling life had she been a woman in France instead of the United States.

Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/features/monroe-miller-montand-signoret-when-golden-couples-meet-2221677.html

https://www.programme-tv.net/biographie/658-signoret-simone/

http://www.allocine.fr/personne/fichepersonne-3291/biographie/

http://www.yves-montand-site-officiel.com/biographie/

Yves Montand Interview on David Letterman, 1987.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/7649015/Marilyn-Monroes-diaries-show-her-intellectual-side.html

 

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EDITOR AND LAST UPDATE
John William Bailly  21 July 2019
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